Our Common Purpose
Strategy 2: Empower Voters
Strategy 2: Empower Voters
“You get discouraged. You’re like, they didn’t do anything the last time. So, sometimes I do feel like your voice isn’t heard or it doesn’t—your vote don’t count or matter.”
Two imperatives animate the Commission’s second strategy.
The first is to make voting less burdensome, wherever and whenever possible. Structural impediments, historical anachronisms, and, in some cases, intentional disenfranchisement have contributed to low voting rates in the United States, but none of these barriers is set in stone. We can overcome them: Give voters more opportunity to vote. Protect the right to vote in times of emergency. Move federal elections to a national holiday. Automatically register eligible citizens to vote. “Preregister” and educate sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds before they are old enough to cast a ballot. Restore the franchise to citizens with felony convictions upon release. These are among the recommendations of the Commission’s second strategy, all designed to empower voters.
The second imperative more directly puts the onus on voters. Voting is a privilege of citizenship but also a responsibility. We have fought hard domestically to expand our constitutional democracy, partly through the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments, which guarantee the franchise regardless of race or gender. The fight for voting rights is ongoing, but when the barriers to voting are lowered, citizens must fulfill their responsibilities as voters. That is why the Commission also recommends making participation in the election process mandatory.
Citizens should feel eager to vote. As representation improves (Strategy 1) and institutions become more responsive (Strategy 3), fewer citizens will see voting as a pointless and purely symbolic exercise. Strengthening the capacity of civil society to build bridges among Americans (Strategy 4) and creating a healthy information architecture (Strategy 5) will give voters the experience and knowledge they need to participate. The goal is a culture (Strategy 6) in which not voting is taboo. Who would choose to forgo the powerful, profound, and joyful expression of political agency that voting will have become?
Give people more choices about where and when they vote, with state-level legislation in all states that supports the implementation of vote centers and early voting. During an emergency like COVID-19, officials must be prepared to act swiftly and adopt extraordinary measures to preserve ballot access and protect the fundamental right to vote.
Explicit legal barriers to participation are not the only hurdles that Americans seeking to exercise their right to vote must overcome. Transportation, long lines, and inconvenient polling locations and hours are also challenges. In 2020, a great pandemic emerged as another barrier, as primary and local elections are postponed and Americans practice social distancing and heed stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. States and local jurisdictions should take increased measures to make voting accessible, safe, and convenient for their citizens.
When given a choice during a normal election, voters will select a polling location based on what else they are doing that day (work, doctor’s appointments, dropping kids off, and so on). To reduce obstacles to voting, some U.S. counties and cities, like Larimer County, Colorado, have used vote centers—sites like Walmart and Costco that are conveniently located with ample parking and extended hours—instead of relying exclusively on neighborhood precinct polling places. At vote centers, eligible voters can cast a vote in their jurisdiction, regardless of their specific precinct.
While vote centers have received positive reviews from voters, and have been shown to increase turnout, they are not designed to replace precinct polling locations; rather, they provide an additional option for those who require a more flexible location. Sixteen states already allow vote centers on election day: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.
States and local governments also need to make early voting more accessible. It is impossible for everyone to vote on one single day: even on holidays, many people work or travel. Currently, thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia allow voters to cast a ballot during a defined time period before election day.
Expanding early voting to at least two weeks before election day itself should also be a part of the solution, although going much beyond that is not advisable, since a longer period increases the chances that voters will make choices before critical events occur in a campaign. Neither vote centers nor early voting have been shown to favor one party over the other.
When emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic occur, state and local officials must be ready to act to protect the right to vote and ensure the legitimacy of election outcomes.37 In the case of the 2020 pandemic, election officials must also protect public health. Universal vote-by-mail (VBM) options should be expanded across all states during this period of emergency, and in-person voting should be available consistent with public health guidelines. Assuring that any emergency measures are transparent, well-publicized, consistent with existing law, and done in a bipartisan manner is critical to protecting the legitimacy of an election outcome.
For the eight states that are already all or mostly all vote-by-mail, the adjustments in 2020 will be minimal, but for the remaining forty-two states, this shift may require new legislation, emergency executive orders, or rulemaking to facilitate absentee voting.38 The demands on the election infrastructure in these forty-two states will be extensive. A critical gating factor will be establishing ways to ensure the integrity of the voting rolls. Expanded VBM will require federal and state investment in new equipment to process ballots and verify signatures; training of election administrators and volunteers; and massive public education campaigns around voter registration, ballot requests, and deadlines. To maximize voter participation and ensure confidence in election results, states should expand the number of ballot drop-off locations, require prepaid postage for return envelopes, follow best practices around ballot design, adopt ballot tracking software, and conduct postelection audits. Even with expanded voting by mail, it will also be important not to reduce the number of polling places: during a health crisis, shorter lines and less crowded venues are beneficial. Americans should be prepared for election results to take days if not weeks to be processed. While these efforts will be costly, ensuring during this crisis the right of every eligible voter to participate in the general election and have their votes counted is fundamental to the well-being of our constitutional democracy.
- 37National Task Force on Election Crises, “COVID-19 Election Guide,” (accessed March 30, 2020).
- 38Ibid.; and Amber McReynolds, “Vote at Home Scale Plan,” Vote at Home Institute, March 2020.
Change federal election day to Veterans Day to honor the service of veterans and the sacrifices they have made in defense of our constitutional democracy, and to ensure that voting can occur on a day that many people have off from work. Align state election calendars with this new federal election day.
Veterans have fought for centuries to preserve American democracy and the right to vote. To honor their sacrifices, Congress should make Veterans Day our federal election day. Veterans Day honors the patriotism of generations of service members; casting a ballot on that day will remind Americans of their obligation to constitutional democracy and to one another. Moving election day to an existing federal holiday will also make voting easier for modern voters. Tuesday was initially chosen as election day, in 1845, because it allowed voters in an agrarian society to avoid interference with both the weekly market day, usually a Wednesday, and the Sabbath. Creating an election day that puts the needs of its voters first is a principle that is as applicable today as it was 175 years ago.
- The United States ranks twenty-sixth in voter turnout among the thirty-two OECD countries for which data are available, and it is one of only nine to use weekday voting.39
- Sixty-five percent of Americans favor making election day a national holiday.40
Elections in America occur more frequently than almost any other country. To reduce the number of times voters are called to the polls, state legislatures and municipalities should align their calendars with those of the federal government.41 This could significantly increase turnout, particularly in low-participation elections like local legislative bodies and school boards. While this alignment would lead to longer ballots and the potential for choice fatigue, municipalities are experimenting with innovative solutions, such as flipping the ballot order so that traditionally down-ballot items like school-board elections would appear at the top, and well-publicized items like presidential or gubernatorial races would appear at the bottom of the ballot.
Implementing these reforms will require coordination among secretaries of state, legislative authorities, and election officials at all levels. Civil society groups like veterans’ organizations will be central to ensuring that the celebratory aspect of this holiday be raised up and that recognizing veterans’ sacrifices be intrinsic to the act of voting.
- 39DeSilver, “U.S. Trails Most Developed Countries in Voter Turnout.” California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Utah, Montana, and Arizona are already all VBM or the majority of their voters vote by mail.
- 40Pew Research Center, “Elections in America: Concerns over Security, Divisions over Expanding Access to Voting,” October 29, 2018.
- 41Richard W. Boyd, “Decline of U.S. Voter Turnout: Structural Explanations,” American Politics Quarterly 9 (2) (1981): 133–159.
Establish, through state and federal legislation, same-day registration and universal automatic voter registration, with sufficient funding and training to ensure that all government agencies that have contact with citizens include such registration as part of their processes.
In most parts of the United States, individuals bear the responsibility of registering to vote. Decades of research show that easing the registration process significantly increases voter turnout, so policies that increase the opportunity and accessibility of voter registration are vitally important. Every state should adopt legislation to require all state social-service agencies to include automatic voter registration (AVR) as part of their services. AVR improves the accuracy and verification of voter eligibility and has significantly expanded voting rolls in early-adopting states like Oregon and Vermont. We recommend that Congress also create legislation to require federal agencies to expand this innovation in voter registration into a system of universal registration for the country. Sixty-five percent of Americans support automatically registering all eligible citizens to vote.42
- Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have or are implementing AVR, and AVR bills have been introduced in thirty-nine states.
- Voter registration rates have increased in every state that has adopted AVR, with increases in registrants ranging from 9 to 94 percent.43
Because not all eligible citizens will encounter a state or federal agency before election day, same-day registration (SDR) should also be in place in all states. SDR has proven to enhance turnout by as much as 5–7 percent in many states. Some states adopted SDR policies as early as the 1970s. In the 2020 election, more than twenty states and the District of Columbia will offer SDR, which is supported by 64 percent of the American people.44
The Commission is mindful of the lessons learned through the implementation of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (the “Motor Voter Act”) for the implementation of universal AVR. Agency heads and the executives to whom they report will be critical to the successful implementation of universal AVR, which requires that voter registration be integrated with the data systems of all these agencies: appropriate safeguards around issues of eligibility (such as citizenship) must be in place; agency employees who interact with the public need training; and these reforms, of course, require funding.
- 42Pew Research Center, “Elections in America: Concerns over Security, Divisions over Expanding Access to Voting.”
- 43Kevin Morris and Peter Dunphy, AVR Impact on State Voter Registration (New York: Brennan Center for Justice, 2019).
- 44Pew Research Center, “Elections in America: Concerns over Security, Divisions over Expanding Access to Voting.”
Establish, through state legislation, the preregistration of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds and provide educational opportunities for them to practice voting as part of the preregistration process.
“Just bring a machine to every school. . . . That’s where we need to build more firsthand experience with the process, to have someone fully feel like they can be confident, and own that.”
The nation’s youngest voters consistently turn out at lower rates than older voters. Research suggests that this is because younger voters move more often and so have weaker ties to their communities. In multiple listening sessions, young Americans offered another explanation: they often don’t turn out because they don’t want to “vote wrong” or “make a mistake.”
Inculcating voting as a habit early on can have a long-term impact on a voter’s likelihood to turn out. To encourage young voters to turn out more often and in greater numbers, state legislators should pass legislation that allows the preregistration of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. All of these young people who have preregistered should then be automatically placed on the rolls when they turn eighteen.
- Fourteen states and the District of Columbia allow preregistration of sixteen-year-olds, and four states allow preregistration of seventeen-year-olds.
- Studies show that preregistration increases turnout between two and eight percentage points among young voters, especially when it is accompanied by voting demonstrations in school.45
Schools should make preregistration and practice voting essential components of their regular civic education, social studies, or history curriculum. Civic education requirements should include coordination with local election officials to provide sample ballots and exposure to voting machines. As with Recommendation 2.3, this initiative will involve meeting some technical requirements, notably the development of a database that can protect the information of preregistrants and automatically add them to the voter-registration file when they turn eighteen.
- 45John B. Holbein and D. Sunshine Hillygus, “Making Young Voters: The Impact of Preregistration on Youth Turnout,” American Journal of Political Science 60 (2) (2016): 364–382.
Establish, through congressional legislation, that voting in federal elections be a requirement of citizenship, just as jury service is in the states. All eligible voters would have to participate, in person or by mail, or submit a valid reason for nonparticipation. Eligible voters who do not do so would receive a citation and small fine. (Participation could, of course, include voting for “none of the above.”)
Voting is the core element of a democracy and should be officially recognized as such. The United States should adopt a version of the Australian system’s mandatory attendance at the polls. In Australia, eligible voters do not have to cast a vote for an individual or a party: they can vote for “none of the above,” sometimes called a “donkey ballot.” However, voters who fail to file a ballot on or prior to election day are subject to a fine that, in U.S. dollars, falls roughly between $15 and $60. This system has been in effect since 1924. Before the country implemented universal voting, Australia’s turnout was like ours, averaging around 50 percent. Since the reform, turnout in every election has been over 90 percent of enrolled voters.46 Australians now see voting as a civic duty, and as part of their civic culture. The government has to fine nonvoters relatively infrequently.
“But wouldn’t forcing somebody to go vote—wouldn’t that go directly against our democracy?”
Many Americans may initially see this recommendation as “un-American” or “undemocratic.” This recommendation is not for compulsory voting for any candidate or party. Indeed, the option to cast a blank ballot or vote for “none of the above” is central to this recommendation. The requirement to participate at the polls is on par with the requirement to fulfill the call to jury service, and is equally American and democratic.
The preceding recommendations are directed at making voting easier. This is a necessary precursor to making it mandatory. Voting is a core obligation of the practice of democratic citizenship, and citizens cannot be expected to fulfill that duty unless voting is as easy and accessible as possible.
Implementing such a system in the United States would be a major task, and certainly should not be done by fiat. Setting universal voting as a “North Star” for democratic citizenship will encourage reforms that help lead us in that direction. Congress should pass legislation to establish universal voting. States and municipalities should also begin to adopt mandatory attendance requirements for their own elections.
- 46Tim Evans, Compulsory Voting in Australia (Canberra: Australian Election Commission, 2006); and Tacey Rychter, “How Compulsory Voting Works: Australians Explain,” The New York Times, October 22, 2018.
Establish, through state legislatures and/or offices of secretaries of state, paid voter orientation for voters participating in their first federal election, analogous to a combination of jury orientation and jury pay. Most states use short videos produced by the state judicial system to provide jurors with a nonpolitical orientation to their duty; first-time voters should receive a similar orientation to their duty.
“Voting is a lot of work. . . . It is. I dropped my two girls off to vote at their first voting. They had no clue what [to do]. They’re not taught. They don’t know about the ballots. . . . It scared them to go in. . . . And then when they came out they were like, ‘We didn’t know what to put on the ballot. We didn’t know . . . there’s so many questions.’”
—Charlotte, North Carolina
Hanging chads, confusing ballot designs, undercounts, failing apps, verifiable ballots: every election cycle brings new stories about the challenges that Americans face in casting and counting votes. For first-time voters, the process can be confusing, intimidating, and suspect. Jury duty is a legally required act of citizenship, but Americans are not asked to serve without some guidance or familiarization with the judicial system. Most states use short videos produced by their state judicial system to orient jurors to jury duty. First-time voters should similarly receive a nonpolitical orientation to voter duty. Many first-time voters today have either never received voter orientation—in school, for example—or they may simply be new to a jurisdiction and unfamiliar with its procedures. State jury-orientation videos provide a good model for what voter-orientation videos could be: offering a history of voting generally and of voting rights in the United States, a justification of the value of voting to our constitutional democracy, and specific information about the process a voter is about to experience. Additionally, just as states provide jurors with a small stipend, they should provide new voters with a small stipend for attending a brief voter-orientation session.
Paid first-time voter orientation is a new concept that should be vetted through pilot programs in association with secretaries of state and other election administrators. How voters would be paid would vary from state to state.
Restore federal and state voting rights to citizens with felony convictions immediately and automatically upon their release from prison, and ensure that those rights are also restored to those already living in the community.
“There are [millions of incarcerated people] across the country that don’t have the right to vote [and] do not feel part of this democratic process that we’re talking about. . . . I’m wondering how we can begin to reengage those voices.”
—New York, New York
Since the founding of the republic, some states have instituted laws that revoked the voting rights of those convicted of felonies. During the Jim Crow era, these laws disproportionately deprived African Americans of their right to vote. Today, millions of U.S. citizens—and still a disproportionate number of black citizens—are denied the right to vote because they have committed a felony, even after they are released from prison. Some states have proposed groundbreaking measures that would restore voting rights to many citizens who have served their time, like the initiative proposed on Amendment 4 of Florida’s 2018 ballot, which passed with nearly 65 percent of voters’ support. These efforts are being undermined, however, by attempts to impose fines and other penalties on individuals before their right to vote can be restored. The majority of Americans favor restoring voting rights to those convicted of felonies after they have served their sentences.47
- Iowa is the only state that permanently disenfranchises anyone with a felony conviction, while ten other states permanently disenfranchise some people with felony convictions.
- Only seventeen states automatically restore voting rights to citizens after release from prison. Vermont and Maine never disenfranchise people with criminal convictions.48
- Twenty states limit the voting rights of individuals on parole or probation even though they are living and working in the community.
If we want to build civic engagement and commitment to democratic principles, we need to recognize the value of all voices in a community, as well as the importance of offering citizens second chances. Allowing all voting-age citizens living in a community to register and vote would be a major expansion of the franchise. Congress and state legislatures should pass legislation that automatically and immediately restores state and federal voting rights to individuals upon their release from prison, without conditions, and extends those voting rights to any voting-age citizen convicted of a felony who is already living in the community (this would include those on parole or probation and those who were never required to serve time for their conviction).
- 47Kristen Bialik, “How Americans View Some of the Voting Policies Approved at the Ballot Box,” Pew Research Center, November 15, 2018.
- 48Brennan Center for Justice, “Criminal Disenfranchisement Laws Across the United States,” May 30, 2019.